Marine park rollback a 'loss for science'

Daniel Mercer

A renowned WA scientist has deplored the Abbott Government's decision to reopen planning for a landmark network of marine reserves, saying it is a cynical ploy aimed at watering down protections.

Jessica Meeuwig, a research professor with the University of WA's Oceans Institute, said the marine parks set up by the former Federal Labor government had barely done enough to conserve fish stocks.

Professor Meeuwig said moves by the coalition to scrap key aspects of Labor's plans were a defeat for science that would discount most of the environmental benefits the parks would have delivered.

Under Labor's plans, dozens of areas around Australia, including more than 20 off WA, were declared marine sanctuaries, or "no-take" zones, in which all forms of fishing and oil and gas exploration were banned.

In total, about a third, or 3.1 million square kilometres, of Commonwealth waters between three and 200 nautical miles offshore were set aside as marine reserves.

Commercial and recreational fishing and resource activity were allowed in most.

As part of a little-touted move that was derided as "sneaky" by some critics, Environment Minister Greg Hunt confirmed last month the Government would axe the sanctuary "lockouts".

Mr Hunt also said the Government would redevelop the management plans for individual marine parks - a process that has been condemned by green groups but welcomed by fishers.

"As a scientist, one of the things that really annoys me is science denialism," Professor Meeuwig said.

"Hunt has turned it into 'Labor is mean to recreational fishers, we're going to overturn this and save the oceans'.

"Well, rubbish, you can't do that - the advice is clear."

Mr Hunt did not comment yesterday but has previously said the decision to revisit the marine park issue was an election promise.

He said the Government was only aiming to change the composition of protection zones within the marine parks - not the boundaries of the parks themselves - and any changes would be fairer.